Art Thoughts, Week 38 -- Braque & Trickery

Still Life with Knife, Georges Braque (French 1882—1963), oil on canvas, BF546.

Trickery has a long history in art – both in simple fun and for ulterior motives, artists attempt to manipulate and subvert the viewer’s actions and opinions. Trompe-l’oeil (in English, “fool the eye”) is one of the oldest names for this type of trickery, though the concept is immemorial. In a way, every attempt at mimicking visual reality is a form of trickery. Art, and even novels, have been derided or condemned as immoral, since the artist or author was attempting to co-opt the creative supremacy of God – that is why some considered fiction to be “lying” and image-making to be “idolatry”.

Braque, the father of Cubism, is participating in a parallel mode to trompe-l’oeil, but not in any way in which eyes (or vision in general) is being fooled. He is, in essence, employing in Still Life with Knife a painting technique which could be called “fool the painting” rather than “fool the eyes”. And, it looks exactly the opposite of a typical trompe-l’oeil work. Instead of the viewer being fooled, we are in on the action: it is the scene – the painting – which is being tricked. This is akin to the playwright’s technique of an aside, in which the audience is given information by a character in the play, which one or the rest of the characters do not know. Now, this may sound fantastical when applied to a painting, but suspending disbelief for a bit by personifying this painting, we may discover the effect of certain modernist painting techniques on the very idea of painting, and the nature of its relationship to the reality to which it’s linked.

There are several distinct things that Braque has employed in this painting which will help explicate what is meant by “fool the painting”. For one, he has mixed sand into his paints, or the ground. It’s a little hard to tell which, but for all intents and purposes, the effect is largely the same: the sand – through the paint and under the image, emphasizes the flatness of the picture plane, and de-emphasizes all manner of illusion. So, if for a second we switch places with the painting, it may be expecting to be painted with at least a modicum of reality. But because we can see the sandy layer clearly, thrown into relief by reflection, we know that Braque is not concerned about the reality itself; but rather in creating an interpretation of the scene that has a deliberate life of its own – obviated by the sandy layer. A second technique that Braque uses to make it clear to us this painting is unrealistic (surface) is a pattern similar to faux graining on painted woodwork or furniture in the lower left hand corner; a dragged fork or other tined tool has created the faux wood grain of the table. But not only is it not really a table, it is a faux representation of a fake table: it is doubly fake – the point is reiterated. Again, the painting itself has been tricked, and we are in the know.

Still another way in which Braque is fooling the painting, and emphasizing surface, is through painting a black halo around the still life arrangement: the glass, knife, pears and napkin – all making clear that the painting is nothing but surface. The halo establishes the two-dimensionality of the scene, sliding the surrounding negative space – what the painting is assuming to be made to look “further back” – up to the forefront, equalizing it with the positive shapes. It’s almost as if this table is being tipped up and everything is coming straight toward us at the same speed, regardless of distance. In this feeling alone does the painting seem to be defying its materiality...and Perhaps in its "fakeness", this painting appeals to the more conservative viewers, purely for it's obvious disconnection from reality?

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